Publish date:

Where's The Party? For a lot of folks in Augusta, the flat economy took the fizz out of Masters week

The week of the Masters is the biggest of the year at Ace Package,
the fine-wine liquor store 10 miles from Amen Corner. The folks
at Ace fill dozens of orders for the groups that rent Augusta's
big, expensive houses for the tournament. For one week, anyway,
the walk-in business is an endless parade of sun-whipped golf
spectators in new Masters windbreakers. It has been this way at
Ace for years, since the bull market began in 1990. This year,
however, things were a little off.

"The differences were subtle, but we noticed them," said the
owner, Tom Thompson. "A lot of our corporate accounts--IBM, the
USGA, Bethlehem Steel, Wake Forest--had smaller orders than in the
past. Overall, the buying was less showy, more informed. Last
year we sold our entire stock, six bottles, of Opus One at $130
per bottle. This year we ordered seven bottles. We've sold one.
People are looking for a better bargain."

For Augustans the week of the Masters is a week to make money.
Schools are closed and many businesses too, so that homeowners
may rent their houses and skip town or work the tournament and
profit from it in some other way. Last year on April 6, the day
the 2000 Masters began, the NASDAQ stood at 4,169, not far from
its record high, and scalpers and restaurateurs and hotel owners
in Augusta were feeling flush. They talked about how Masters week
was an economy unto itself, that the high-rolling trip to Augusta
had become central to American corporate life and was impervious
to economic gyrations. This year on April 5, the day the 2001
Masters began, the NASDAQ had slumped to 1,639, and those same
people found out they were wrong.

This was the year to come to Augusta without a ticket--or badge,
in Masters parlance--and get into the tournament without
ransacking the children's college education fund. This was the
year to get a last-minute hotel room at 1996 prices. On Friday
morning four rooms were still available at the Days Inn on
Washington Road, only a mile from the course, reduced from $240
per night to $190. Most years, the closest available hotel room
to Augusta for the Friday night of Masters week is 75 miles away,
in Columbia, S.C.

People stayed away because they knew, from experience, that
paying for a room is just the beginning. In a typical year their
most outrageous expense comes from purchasing Masters badges from
the ticket brokers who wander along Washington Road. What the
out-of-towners didn't know was that this was the year the bottom
fell out of the ticket market. It happened suddenly.

"Normal year, you've got dozens of 'straights,' people willing to
spend at least $400 to buy a one-day badge," said a Washington
Road scalper, unwilling to give his name because, he said, he was
already on probation. A straight refers to a true golf fan--not a
person on a corporate boondoggle--who has driven all night to see
the tournament and be part of its history. "This year there are
none," he said. "None."

Corporate entertainment organizers, who paid brokers as much as
$8,000 last year for a ticket for the four competitive rounds,
found they could buy that same four-day ticket this year for
$2,000. It was a buyer's market. Sellers suffered. One Augustan,
a retired Army officer in his 70s, first tried to sell his
four-day badge on March 28. He called 20 brokers and was offered
$3,200 for the ticket, last year's going rate. He refused the
offer. With Tiger Woods trying to make history by winning four
consecutive majors, he figured the demand for the ticket would
only go up.

The Army officer was not alone: Sellers everywhere were hoarding
tickets, waiting for demand to skyrocket. Every day, though, the
price kept dropping. On the morning of April 3, a broker offered
the officer $1,000 for the ticket. By the time they met that
afternoon, the broker's offer had fallen to $500. The Army man
held out for $600. They split the difference--$550--for a ticket
with a face value of $125.

That basic story, the shrinking market for discretionary
cash-based services, was told again and again by different people
in different businesses. Brian Beatty owns a company called
Augusta Escorts. On the Sunday night before the tournament, he
was besieged with calls. "I wasn't expecting it," Beatty said. "I
had more calls than girls to go out, so I geared up." Beatty
called in some of his reserves from nearby cities. He had as many
as 15 women ready, but for the rest of the week, business fell

"Usually, people call up ahead of time; they want the girl for 10
p.m. for a party or something," Beatty said. "This year we're
getting calls at four, five in the morning, people wanting a girl
right away after drinking all night." Money was being spent, but
the purchasing was impulsive, not a calculated part of an
entertainment budget.

In Augusta last week there were economic theorists sitting on bar
stools and standing on street corners. The scalpers theorized the
corporate entertainment budgets were slashed and that was what
killed the ticket market. There was talk of FORTUNE 500 companies
canceling their housing contracts or paying for rental houses but
not using them. The theory behind the talk was that high-flying
executives didn't want to be associated with lavish entertainment
at a time when many companies were announcing layoffs, budget
reductions and diminished earnings. At least one real estate
broker who specializes in Masters week rentals confirmed that
theory. Alfred Monsalvatge, a partner at TravelMasters Sports and
Entertainment Group, said he knew of at least 10 houses that were
rented but never used. "The market adjusted to reality," he said.

Most of the economic changes from last year were not dramatic,
just telling. The changes suggested that a decade-long party is
over. That's what William Murrell believes. He is the owner of an
Augusta limousine service and the personal driver for Augustan
James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. On Friday night, just before
driving the singer to Augusta mayor Bob Young's annual Masters
reception, Murrell compared this year's business with last
year's. "Last year, people were having fun," he said. "They'd fly
into Augusta and get picked up in our 10-passenger super stretch.
This year they're flying into Atlanta, renting a car and making
the drive. Last year one of my drivers picked up a guy at one of
the big houses at West Lake," Murrell said, referring to a pricey
housing development on the outskirts of Augusta. "Picked up the
client and his date at 10 p.m. and brought them to a downtown
club. The client had his driver wait and bring them home five
hours later. That's five hours at $100 an hour, and the guy put a
$400 tip on that. This year, the tips are $5, $10. Some drivers
are complaining."

Still, life went on. The mayor had his reception. By Friday night
the Days Inn was full, as it always is on the Friday night of
Masters week. On Sunday morning, there were straights near the
gates of Augusta National, ready to spend hundreds for badges.

What next year will bring, no one can say. One man was taking a
broader view. "We have found in recent times that there is a thin
line between prosperity and poverty," said the Reverend Gregory
Young of Thankful Baptist Church in Augusta. "But people will
always chase the almighty dollar."

On Sunday morning he addressed his parishioners a few hours
before Woods teed off. "The Masters lasts but one week," Young
said, "but if you have faith in the Master, you'll be set for
life!" As the preacher looked out at the pews of his church, he
saw that attendance was low, maybe 160 people, half the crowd he
normally preaches to on a Sunday. Many congregants were working
at the tournament or in private homes, making extra cash as
housekeepers, as waiters, as drivers. Young's words soared, but
his numbers were down. He was not alone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOPHER STANFORD BIG WHEEL The Godfather of Soul kept Murrell (left) hopping, but Murrell's limo drivers complained that business was slow.

COLOR PHOTO: E.M. PIO RODA DRY SPELL Thompson stocked up on expensive wine only to discover that tastes had changed.

Beatty called in reserves. He had as many as 15 women ready, but
for the rest of the week, business fell off.